A brief account of the foundation of the academy

Reproduced from ‘Proceedings of the British Academy’, [volume 1] 1903-1904, pp. vii-ix.

The following ‘brief account’ was published in the first volume of the Proceedings of the British Academy (1905).

A more detailed ‘Documentary Account’ of the foundation of the British Academy was published at the time of its centenary in 2002.

At a Meeting of the Representatives of the chief European and American Academies, held at Wiesbaden in October, 1899, a scheme was drawn up for the organization of an International Association of the principal Scientific and Literary Academies of the World.

The scheme provided for the division of the Association into two Sections, viz. a Section of ‘Natural Science’ and a Section of ‘Literary Science,’ the term ‘Literary’ being used to indicate the sciences of language, history, philosophy, and antiquities, and other subjects the study of which is based on scientific principles, but which are not included under the term ‘Natural Science.’

While the Royal Society represented at the Association the United Kingdom in the Section of ‘Natural Science,’ no existing institution was at that date deemed competent to represent the United Kingdom in the section dealing with historical, philosophical, and philological studies.

In consequence of this defect in existing English institutions, these branches of study in the United Kingdom were not represented at the first meeting of the International Association of Academies held in Paris in 1900.

It was urgently demanded by the International Representatives present at the Meetings of the Association that immediate efforts should be made to secure the due corporate representation of these branches of study in the United Kingdom.

On November 21, 1899, the Council of the Royal Society addressed a letter to certain selected persons suggesting the possibility that some body might be formed capable of representing this country in the International Association of Academies in respect of those studies in which the country is not represented by the Royal Society. The persons who received that letter conferred with each other, and at a meeting held on December 14, 1899, drew up a statement of their views which was communicated to the Royal Society. The main point in the statement was that the idea of an academy formed by the simple federation of existing societies did not meet the views of those present at the meeting. At the same time a letter from the late Professor Henry Sidgwick was forwarded to the Royal Society, enclosing ‘a plan for the institution of a new Academy or Section,’ which had been approved by several of the gentlemen taking part in the meeting. According to Professor Sidgwick’s ‘Plan,’ the aid of the Royal Society might be given in one of two ways – (a) It might propose to enlarge its scope so as to include the representation of the subjects in question; or (b), if it preferred to maintain the restriction of scope, it might support a body external to itself in the attempt to obtain a new Charter.

On January 18, 1900, the Council of the Royal Society considered the matter, and appointed a Committee of Fellows, with power to confer with such persons as they thought desirable, and to report to the Council on the suggestions made in Professor Sidgwick’s memorandum. The Committee placed themselves in communication, through Professor Sidgwick, Professor Jebb, and Lord Acton, with a number of representatives of philosophico-historical and philological studies, and on May 29, 1900, a Conference took place between the Committee and the latter representatives of ‘literary’ science. At the conference views were exchanged as to various methods by which the desired object could be effected. The Committee of Fellows subsequently furnished to the Council of the Royal Society a report of considerable length, stating the reasons which might be urged for and against the several measures suggested. Upon the receipt of that report the President and Council thought it desirable that the subject should be considered by the whole body of Fellows, and it was accordingly decided that the meeting of the Society on May 9, 1901, should be devoted to the consideration of the report in order that the President and Council might have an opportunity of hearing the views of the Fellows on the questions raised therein.

The feeling of the meeting held on May 9 was against the possible enlargement of the scope of the Royal Society, so as to include the representation of the new subjects; and on June 4 [actually July 4], 1901, the following decision was arrived at by the President and Council of the Society – ‘That the President and Council, while sympathizing with the desire to secure corporate organization for the exact literary studies considered in the British Academy Report, are of opinion that it is undesirable that the Royal Society should itself initiate the establishment of a British Academy.’

Soon after the meeting of the Fellows of the Royal Society held on May 9, 1901, certain persons who had received the original letter from the secretaries of the Royal Society, in association with other persons, took independent action, with a view of supplying what the Royal Society felt itself unable to supply. A meeting was held at the British Museum on June 28, 1901. At that meeting it was unanimously resolved as follows – ‘That, in the opinion of this meeting, it is desirable that a society representative of Historical, Philosophical, and Philological Studies be formed on conditions which will satisfy the requirements of the International Association of Academies.’ The persons present, with power to add to their number, were constituted a Provisional ‘General Committee,’ and a sub-committee was at the same time appointed for the purposes of considering how the project might be realized. The sub-committee held frequent meetings in the summer and autumn of 1901, and on November 19 reported to the ‘General Committee’ by which it had been appointed. The ‘General Committee’ then decided that certain persons should be invited to become the first members of a new body to be called ‘The British Academy for the Promotion of Historical, Philosophical, and Philological Studies.’

On December 17, 1901, the new body, as an unincorporated society, met for the first time, and drew up a Petition to His Majesty in Council for the Grant of a Royal Charter for incorporating the society under the title of ‘The British Academy for the Promotion of Historical, Philosophical, and Philological Studies,’ or under such other title as to His Majesty might seem fit; in accordance with the terms of the Draft Charter submitted, or in such other terms as might seem proper.

The Royal Society cordially welcomed the institution of the new body, and petitioned His Majesty in favour of a Charter being granted.

In reply to a petition presented to the Lords of the Privy Council by a number of men of science and men of letters, to the effect that such incorporation as was sought could be most effectively provided for in some relationship to the Royal Society, it was submitted that the granting of the Charter would not preclude any ultimate combination of the Royal Society and the British Academy.

On August 8, 1902, the eve of His Majesty’s Coronation, the Royal Charter was granted, incorporating the new Society as ‘the British Academy for the Promotion of Historical, Philosophical, and Philological Studies.’

The Bye-laws, in accordance with the terms of the Charter, were allowed by Order of Council, dated February 5, 1903.

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